Hiding in plain sight — my life as an undocumented American | Leezia Dhalla | TEDxSanAntonio
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Hiding in plain sight — my life as an undocumented American | Leezia Dhalla | TEDxSanAntonio

Translator: Ivana Korom
Reviewer: Krystian Aparta Four years ago, I almost got deported. It was a couple of days
before my 21st birthday and I had just come home from a ski trip
in the mountains with my college friends. I remember pulling
my suitcase up the stairs and just as I pushed opened the door
to my childhood bedroom, I heard my dad’s voice from behind. That’s when he said four words
I’ll never forget: “You don’t have papers.” In his hand was a letter
from The Department of Homeland Security – a notice to appear in Immigration Court. The letter said
that I had overstayed my visa and now had to go before a judge who could issue me a ten-year bar
from re-entering the only home I know. How do you prepare yourself
for the realization that you are less than legal? That suddenly, you’re an unwelcome
guest in your own home? Facing eviction. That moment of truth sent me flying
into a new chapter of my life that I never wanted or imagined
I could ever be a part of because I had heard
about those illegal aliens, how they’re criminal, they take our jobs, they don’t even speak English! But my dad’s words exposed me
to a reality that wasn’t mine, until suddenly it was. And suddenly, that illegal alien was me. Today, I want to take you
on that journey of transformation. To help you understand what it’s like
to be undocumented in America. My story starts about 300 miles north
of the Montana border in Edmonton, Canada. My family didn’t have much money, so in 1995, when I was five years old, my dad went to the US
to search for something more, while his wife and his
two young kids stayed behind. In Florida, he made five bucks an hour
behind a counter of a Dunkin’ Donuts. It wasn’t glamorous
and the future was really uncertain, but my dad believed in the American dream. The American dream is –
it’s what you tell your kids or maybe what your parents told you – that if you just stay in school
and if you eat all your vegetables, you can be anything you want
when you grow up. It’s the idea that if you just work hard,
you can do great things. And our founding fathers
believed in the American dream. And did you know that none
of our founders were born American? They all became American over time. In fact, many of our nation’s
immigrants were paperless, but their dreams of prosperity gave their children
and their children’s children the ability to call themselves American. Many of those children
are in this audience. I was six years old in 1996, when my dad got me a visa to come here. And I can still remember
learning the words to the Pledge of Allegiance
on the first day of school. I remember when I traded in
my snow boots for cowboy boots and when “washroom” became the “bathroom”. And when I learned
“The Star-Spangled Banner” and how it replaced “O Canada.” I remember how in elementary school, I spent five years learning
how to square-dance, which, by the way,
is not a transferable skill – I can’t take that to Canada with me. Yeah. My parents loved it here
and they wanted to stay. So they hired an attorney,
filed the paperwork, they paid the fees
and they waited for an approval that just never came. We never imagined our attorney
would file the paperwork late. Or that an employer
would refuse to sign a document in the final stage of a years-long
application process. Things went wrong. But we played by the rules and 18 years later,
we have nothing to show for it. Not even papers. You know, handling immigration paperwork
is sort of like filing taxes – it’s an adult’s issue, not something
you would concern the kids with. So I didn’t know I had overstayed my visa, because I was left out
of that decision-making process. And instead, I focused
on other things, like school. I got accepted to Northwestern University and when I left for college,
my parents came with me to make sure there’s air conditioning
in my dorm, which there wasn’t. But also to make sure
there were no boys living in my dorm, which there were. (Laughter) But that was the last time
they ever got on a plane, because a couple of months later
their driver’s licenses expired and that’s really when their life
of invisibility began. You know, living in this country without a valid, government-issued
ID card, is hard. Because while my parents
can’t renew their driver’s licenses, they still pay car insurance. They can’t open a savings account,
can’t get a credit card, can’t sign up for Obamacare, and forget retirement
without social security. My parents have a 20-year track record of paying income tax,
sales tax, property tax, Medicaid tax, Medicare tax,
Social Security tax, and yet we are still undocumented. Growing up, I felt the burden
of being undocumented in so many other ways. I felt it when I took out
six figures in loans to pay for college because I didn’t qualify
for federal financial aid. I felt it when my parents
wouldn’t let me study abroad because what they knew at the time,
and what I didn’t, was that if I left the country,
I wouldn’t be allowed back in. I was sitting at my college graduation
ceremony in June 2012 on the day that White House
launched a new program that allowed young people
brought to the US, including myself, to get our work permits. And it was a huge sigh of relief,
because before then, I didn’t know what I was going to do
with a diploma in one hand and without a work permit in the other. But that work permit
is a temporary solution to a much longer-term problem. Because it expires in two years. And beyond then, my life is uncertain. How can you really plan for a life, when that life can come
crashing down at any moment? It’s scary knowing your status
is a secret you always have to hold. That you always have to fear. So, we hide in plain sight. We drive below the speed limit, we stop at every yellow light. And we try to stay positive, but it’s hard to keep your head down
and your chin up at the same time. I feel American. I always have. But every day I’m reminded that I’m not. I was reminded when I got called in
for jury duty a couple of years ago, and during election season,
since I can’t vote. I was reminded a few months ago, when immigration officers took my dad. I had to rip up my student loan check and re-write it to
the Department of Homeland Security to get him released
from behind barb-wired fence surrounding the South Texas
Detention Center. That’s a kind of place
where you’re given a dirty white jumpsuit and known by your serial number. How did we get to a point in this country where 11 million people
are living in the shadows? Eleven million people! That’s the population of New York City
and Los Angeles combined. It is a massive number. Here’s immigration in a nutshell. About half of the undocumented population
came here without authorization – there’s no record of them
having crossed the border. The other half, including myself –
we came here legally. But over time, things like 9/11
made immigration laws more complex. And so while we waited
for our applications to process, we developed strong ties
to our communities. So we never left. The numbers are pretty stunning, actually. About 60% of the undocumented population
has lived here for at least a decade. 25% of the undocumented population – they’ve lived here for more than 20 years. Twenty years! For some of you, that’s a generation. For me, twenty years is a lifetime. A couple of months ago
I went to SXSW, the festival in Austin. And I went to a panel
on immigration reform. One of the questions that came up was, what do we do about the 11 million people
who are living here without papers? A senator responded, and he said, “You know, I wish those immigrants
would just go to the back of the line.” So when the floor opened up for Q&A, I took the mic and I said, “Senator, what does the line look like?” He didn’t have an answer for me, because the truth is, there is no line. It has to do with how old you were
when you got here, the kind of visa you came in on, what country you’re from,
what your occupation is, and a whole host of other factors. But for people like me, who were
brought here when we were children, there is no line. And that’s why immigration reform
matters to so many people. Because it gives us
a chance to get in line. You know, my dad had the guts to step into total darkness with nothing
but big hopes and a bold dream, when he made that decision
to come here legally, twenty years ago. And I’m glad he did. Because even though no one asked
my permission or my opinion to bring me here when I was six years old, I know that I’m American
in every single way, except by virtue of birth. I think that we all owe a debt
to those who came before us, because somewhere in your lineage someone took a leap of faith
to come to America and they gave you the chance
to fulfill your dreams. So as I walk off the stage today, I want to leave you
with just one simple question. Will you please help me fulfill mine? Thank you. (Applause)


  • prashant kimmatkar

    No one can justify your thoughts there is a law and everyone has to follow it. Whether you like it or not. So don’t regret and enjoy it fearlessly. Everyone don’t get what they want but get what is best for them.God Bless You.

  • D Mac

    Your parents broke the law. If we let everyone in that broke the law to come to America, 11 million illegals would be nothing compare to the stampede on America. You need to blame your parents for putting you in this position.

  • Tony Bobér

    First, let me start by saying, I watched the entire video.

    I feel for you little girl, I really do, it was not all your fault. But, it wasn't our government's fault either to enforce the law on your family either. It was your parents fault for not obeying the law in the first place when they had the chance to apply for a green card while their visa was valid, it was the main reason why your fathers employer did not sign the petition nor supported him. I don't think your message should be, to help you, it should be to help others avoid your parents mistakes, by coming into this country, or any other country for that matter, lawfully and remain lawfully., that is what your message be to others. Because after watching this video, it appears that you are just trying to get help for yourself.

  • sammy rivera

    you know the Wicked Witch of the West The Wizard of Oz just reward on top of the damn machine and short-circuit that's all you do and I guess I'm Braxton is andro rock at Hard Rock smashing it and then throw a magnetic magnetic a little device is a little magnetic pieces and try right on on the on the robot in action because magnetic and electronics do not does not compute water and electronics do not compute that's where you do you get rid of them that way okay are you doing a lot of sand or maybe much sand is made out of mud you just pour it right into and then when it gets stuck and hard cement you can go some men on them cement spray cement on them that's all that's how I will stop. Though some men don't have no BWW and it will never work again I'm the wisdom of all powerful mind that person's okay thank you bye bye

  • Patrick Jones

    Imagine living around people who want to breed strictly for the sports industry and want to be able to harm anyone they want.

  • altruistic angel

    it's nice you did something with your life. however, the facts are illegal immigrants are responsible for crime, drugs, disease, rapes, and terrorism. we just can't have open borders with no vetting. look what's happened to germany and the rest of europe. keep the borders open and america falls victim to the same thing. america welcomes our immigrants. just do it legally.

  • altruistic angel

    they stay here not because of strong cultural ties, but free handouts for life. free medicaid, food stamps, and housing. why leave?

  • Yuuri Shibuya

    Stop crying. Just because founding fathers were undocumented immigrants, doesn’t mean America (any country) has to allow undocumented immigrants.
    What will you do if guests over stay (days, months, years) in you home?
    What will you do if homeless ppl just get into you home or stand in front of your door begging to let them in? Will you just welcome them with open arms or call cops?
    Any one as an individual will never take the risk of letting a stranger into their home, if a plumber or a electrician comes to your home for repairs you will watch them with hawk eyes. I can go on n on.
    As a nation it takes a great risk in giving out visa and from time to time. Based on their capacity the govt allows certain asylum seekers. What ever background checks it does, they are still strangers. Every nations’ first responsibility comes to its citizens, rest all next.
    Charity begins at home.
    If the citizens of a neighbouring country becomes refugees due to some reasons, it’s the responsibility of neighbouring countries to help fix their economy and let their ppl stay in their homelands.

  • Todd Ferguson

    how do you prepare yourself? Thank your dad for breaking the law and lying to you about it. What makes the rest of us 'documented' is that we follow the law and enter this country, and other countries, legally. Show some integrity. Own up to your birth country and status and make your life honestly and not in violation of the law.

  • Todd Murphy

    Just because you do not like the laws is tough. Pack up and leave please. You are just a liberal ball of BS. "Feel sorry for me as I break the law".

  • Carl McCoy

    USA has a very good immigration policy, more immigrants are admitted to this country than ALL countries of the world combined. The process is one that must be followed by everyone. If not, then you or some one else is treated better or worse. We call that inequality in the USA. That is Illegal. Apply for citizenship like you are supposed to. It is that simple

  • Potatitis

    ''Did you know that none of our founding fathers were born American'' They were born before the U.S.A existed, they FOUNDED THE U.S.A. And if you mean America as in British America then they weren't American citizens, because it wasn't a country, it was a group of 13 colonies. Plus it was different back then, people were needed to populated the vast landmass that the U.S.A was becoming as it expanded, nowadays is not the same.

  • Matthew Scott

    I believe in immigration reform & support Dreamers. My heart truly goes out to those who come here looking for a better life. That being said.. She’s talking about how awful it is for her parents living in the US without an ID. “Forget Obamacare or retirement” Um, they’re from Canada. There are people in this country who are afraid of being deported to poor nations where they don’t speak the language. If she were deported she’d be sent to Canada, a predominantly English speaking, beautiful “first world” country with a good economy, jobs and free healthcare. It seems kind of belittling to those who might be sent back to poor countries with high crime rates, high unemployment or even war to have her stand up on that stage (especially in San Antonio) and give this speech. Worst case scenario her and her family are sent back to a country that’s basically the US but with free healthcare, cooler weather & and far less gun crime. It seems like she’s doing this so that she can say she did a TED talk & gain some notoriety.

  • J OE

    your family TRIED!!!! to do the RIGHT THINGS! We must take care of those in your situation FIRST! your lawyer sucks! but with all the issues at the border right now is going to be even harder. Our system is broken and under a lot of stress. Tell CONGRESS to fix the immigration laws.

  • Sasquatch Soldrboi

    The Dreamers should STAY!!! IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT, THEY ARE AMERICANS. WE need to STOP Illegal immigration. So that NOBODY ELSE has to go thru this. BUT that's government… YOU (I'm sorry to say) got the letter because as a productive, law abiding tax payer… They knew were to find you and yours… We need reform, and we need to start by granting our Dreamers with permanent residency status. And if they wish, they can start the process to becoming a citizen.

  • Put Donald J Trump on the100 dollar bill

    I have ZERO sympathy for these people! In most cases they've had decades to be "legalized" but chose to be lazy and not file the right paperwork or just dont care until the LAW catches up to them. Everyone has a "Sob story" Well get legalized before your visa expires or cry a river in your own country! End of story period. Over 10% of our overall population are undocumented illegal immigrants and they want to play the "victim" Smh

  • Harold Murphy

    Maybe if people like her and her parents learned the meaning of accountability then they would of done things properly. Big cry baby!! Being brown there was no reason to leave Edmonton, there are lots of social programs for non Whites here in Canada. So her Dad left for another reason.

  • Lisa Zinn

    The American Dream is to enslave you in debt starting from BEFORE you can even work and keep you in debt until the day you die. In the meantime to eke out a living it takes two parents to work. The goal is to keep you so tired, busy and obsessed with money that you never get to know yourself and thus despite how much money you have, you yourself are poverty.

  • Simeon Figg

    LOL this story literally starts out with her saying she overstayed her visa….SHES STILL HERE. Why this is sob story by this pathetic ingeniune speaker even respected by Tedtalks. LOL hey, I have advice stay up to date on federal and court deadlines. This is like someone arguing why they shouldn't go to jail because of an ignored ticket that turned into a warrant. You people are irresponsible pathetic wastes of space in this country. Go live somewhere else and tell me how their governmental reactions are to you purposely disobeying the federal and state laws. Give me a break.

  • Johan Manoj Mathew

    You can still go back to Canada, right? Why are you staying in a country which doesn't want you to stay there? You have a home country, go back there. Why do you want to stay in US as they don't offer you any benefits?

  • Aastha

    "do it legally and you'll be fine" did you guys not watch this whole thing? it takes YEARS for someone to legally be here. We need to change our immigration policies

  • yemerican

    Earth is owned by NO ONE. I believe that if you're a good productive citizen you should have the right to live anywhere on this earth.

  • Rick Rolled

    Shouldn't the title read "Hiding in plain sight-my life as an Illegal Immigrant"? You are neither undocumented nor American. Sorry to burst your bubble

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